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Sold Out to Jesus? Or Just “Sold Out”?

In the aftermath of the YS/Zondervan “Skits That Teach” fiasco (h/t to Soong Chan Rah on a well-executed campaign to address the issues), I think that we saw some interesting systemic problems with racism, the church, and interestingly enough, the boundaries of responsible, creative writing. Emergingtruth has found another interesting twist in this tale, that of Ms. Camy Tang. I think Camy’s case and perspective brings up another interesting facet to the discussion of race, culture, and the Christian faith — that of how Asian American Christians present themselves to us fellow Asian Americans and how they present themselves to “others.”

In short, I think we are sending harsher criticism Ms. Tang’s way because she is Christian. Obviously, if Margaret Cho had done the same thing, we would’ve shrugged it off because the C.H.O is, after all, “notorious”. Is she wrong because she takes on a more “white” perspective? Is she less a Christian and/or less an Asian?

If Ms. Tang was sold out to Jesus, she wouldn’t have sold her Asian American brothers and sisters in Christ out; But she did, and therefore she’s “sold out” and is an immature (at best) or ignorant (at worst) Christian who is unaware of how the dominant culture has manipulated this “loud Asian chick” who thinks she is writing “loud Asian chick lit”. Is that the complicated logic that we’re asking writers and artists to be aware of before they create?

I’m not sure exactly what the problem is, but there is some cognitive dissonance there. And I assure you it’s larger than Ms. Tang and her upcoming novel. I’m trying to put my finger on it…and I pulled out the following post that I had bookmarked a while back. It’s particularly more interesting in light Ms. Tang’s recent post and many reactions to it.

With their universalist aim, Asian-American churches have brought together not only East Asians (and the occasional Southeast Asian) of different ethnic backgrounds but of different levels of Americanization: FOBs, FOB-wannabes, adoptees, and more — kids who are all over the chart on various axes of assimilation. And it assimilates them not into mainstream American culture, as so many Americans think of their church doing for pagans, but rather, it assimilates them into church culture, and often, a culture specific to the given group of believers. What are the contents of this culture? Keep reading:

Distrust of authority, whether that means anyone over 30 or a majority white culture, often breeds a subculture of discontent. For Asian Americans turned off by the superficiality of racial politics on campus, the discontent translates itself into a spiritual forum that retains an ethnic character and yet removes itself completely from the dialogue of race and protest. Ironically, a religion borne to Asia by Western imperialism now manifests itself in a resistance to cultural assimilation in America [emphasis mine]….

And what does that culture promote? Most notably, the mentality that Christians, specifically one’s own congregation, are under attack from all sides, both by the allegedly heathen and sinful customs and values of Asian cultures such as saving face or burning incense for your ancestors, and by the cesspit of mainstream entertainment and society, which young Asian-Americans often like to identify as “white entertainment” and “white society,” because they see themselves represented in it so little and dislike or deliberately ignore the role models, even of their own co-ethnics, which it provides for them. Thus, Christianity provides the perfect excuse for those pre-existing Asian-American tendencies of disassociating from non-co-ethnics as well as for not making any effort to learn about your ancestral culture: both could lead you to temptation to turn away from the church. Assimilation, especially in terms of entertainment choices and friendships, becomes equated with sin. But for those who are already assimilated in the larger ways of language, personal habits, and cultural custom, and who might see adopting more of those as sinful, they’re left with the option of emphasizing their non-assimilation in other areas in order to distinguish themselves from the mainstream.

In the case of Asian-American evangelicals, the extent of that non-assimilation usually amounts to belief in Jesus Christ and their ethnic appearance which they see as closely tied to that belief, because almost all the other members of their congregation are of that same ethnicity. Often, the ethnicity, even more than the belief, becomes the strongest marker of membership in the culture. Outwardly Christian behavior could be easily imitated, but race couldn’t be; it’s the real proof that you’re not a member of that corrupt mainstream AKA white society. But it’s the intersection of ethnicity (with the attendant common experiences and pains that may result from being assumed to be a foreigner) and shared belief that provides a stronger sense of community than simple shared ethnicity or simple shared belief could….

I tend to wonder how much of this disidentification with the mainstream is the result of a congregationalist mentality which emphasizes close personal ties and the creation of a sense of community among a specific group of believers who meet and see each other often. when that group of believers is all of one race, due to their pre-existing proclivity to avoid mainstream institutions, the two tendencies feed off of and amplify each other to produce an “us vs. them” mentality….

The cliquishness and distrust of outsiders which the Asian-American church promotes without actually expressing revolutionary sentiment against that society, manifests itself in personal relationships. More and more young Asian-Americans, especially males, may turn to a church to meet potential co-ethnic mates, because it provides an environment in which they don’t have to worry about Evil Whitey stealing Yellow Bedfellows. Their kid grows up in the Asian-American church, and the cycle begins to repeat itself again … unless someone knows how to break it.

Many Asian Americans feel that the Gospel transcends, rather than having the power to transform, their heritage — that ultimately, redemption of their culture is to write it off, which is why the above writer feels that AAs still congregate yet do not feel free to explore what aspects of their culture and history are redemptive and can be transformed in a healthy, acceptable form. It seems that many AA Christians are crippled with fear as opposed to empowered with the Holy Spirit, which makes us superb critics and judgemental spectators, but poor artists and slow activators. The fault of many Asian American churches is they have not instilled us with that greater sense that we are free to explore every sense of what the Gospel means, which is — stepping fearlessly into diversity, investigating our past, rage against the machine, and fight for the rights of others, holding up our culture to the standard of the Kingdom, and taking an active part in the creation of “a new way” in our generation — To live in the tension of being Eastern and Western, Asian and American, but Christian through and through. The Gospel demands more than new church buildings and a new sound system.

It’s not whether we sell out or not, it is a question of what we are buying — not what we consume, but what we produce, not what we are, but what we are becoming. This is not about us preserving culture, this is about creating it.

About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

14 responses to “Sold Out to Jesus? Or Just “Sold Out”?

  1. danny ⋅

    provocative post

    i was thinking about a short dialogue on AA theology. it’s complicated by the fact that most AAs east of the pacific coast are offspring of the immigration law change in the 60s. this is a long way of saying that we’re in an awkward position to write theology as we’re arguably the most transitional generation. wonder how that affects things.

  2. danny ⋅

    *meant to say “our short dialogue on AA theology”

  3. djchuang

    Churches typically start from a stage of survival, and then some realize ministry success (having an established and/or growing ministry), and then a few make the shift to significance (recognizing the church doesn’t exist for itself, and contributes more outside of itself than sustaining its own institution). Some start early in its life and recognize its role in shaping culture & making Kingdom impact very early on, but it’s my guest that most never get to that stage.

    Wouldn’t it be great to have a church that has people in both its leadership and among its laity that would have on-going discussions about what it means to live out the Gospel, and to have that Gospel inform how we live, and propels the people who are the church to redeem their cultural heritages but also to develop and shape a new kind of culture, a new humanity.

  4. elderj

    This is one of the more provocative posts I’ve read in a while, including your links to the other posts. The sense of powerlessness (crippled with fear in your words) is something I’ve have begun to observe in my own context and yet have not had words to articulate. It seems particularly so among the EM group. The irony of this failure to redeem culture is the loss of some things that are really quite powerful (i.e. the culture of prayer)

  5. paul

    camy tang raises important issues that makes me reflect on my own ministry. gotta read up some more.

  6. Camy Tang

    Hi David,
    I appreciate your commentary on my blog post. It gives me a different perspective on the entire thing, and I like that feeling of intellectual stretching.

    I (rather naively) never expected Asian Americans to even pay attention to my viewpoints because I write fiction, and I’m used to being disregarded or swept aside because I write “mere commercial fiction.” I also personally don’t know many Asians who even read fiction, much less commercial fiction.

    However, author and editor Al Hsu pointed out that I represent my culture–Asian American Christian culture–to non-Asians, many of whom believe Asians are all Buddhist or something like that.

    My primary purpose has always been to entertain–I’m writing chick lit/romance, after all–but my secondary purpose has been to show non-Asians the Asian American Christian characters in my novels, and how they interact with their non-Christian family members and friends.

    This is not unique to Asian Americans–Christians of other ethnicities can relate to this quandry, which is why I hope to have appeal to fiction readers who are not Asian.


  7. Camy,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I feel that the criticism that you’ve received, even if it can be justified, is still a bit unfair to you. First of all, I admire you a great deal because I think that you are someone who is partaking in the creation of culture, media, and voice. That alone is a big step that many of Asian Americans do not take, but somehow many of us feel justified in critiqueing anyone who dares step forward. That is an environment that inhibits creativity as opposed to promoting it. I say, for better or worse, it is better to be in your shoes than those who sit on the sidelines and judge. You are a leader and that is to be admired, but of course, we are all discovering that whew, doesn’t that mean you have more responsibility than you thought? I dare us all to take on as much responsibility.

    I am learning and exploring all of these things as well, as I, only recently, have begun to identify myself as Asian American as opposed to Korean American. In any case, thanks for your voice and your openness to see how much you mean to the community. Write on.

  8. As one who has “stood on the sidelines” and “judged” I would like suggest that we regain some perspective on this whole thing.

    First, anytime an Asian American Christian is able to break into an artistic and literary arena previously denied him/her, it is a cause for celebration. Anytime an AA Christian – once mute – gains a voice, that is something to applaud.

    It is such a breakthrough moment, that even if the AA author came out and said that she employed some AA stereotypes as necessary plot devices, I think we can give her the benefit of the doubt.

    But when the author unapologetically, adamantly, and with crystal-clear articulation states that she finds hilarious certain stereotypes that the majority has found morally reprehensible, then warning signs have to start ringing. When what others have labeled “horribly, inexcusably, and unquestionably racist,” she has described as hilarious, Ms. Tang has left nothing to doubt anymore.

    As such, when she says that she plans on using stereotypes in her novel “to entertain,” all kinds of red flags have to go up. To not be alarmed – after having been given so obvious a warning – is to be an indifferent bystander.

  9. Cuttingtruth, I don’t disagree with anything that you’ve said, but I have reason to believe that the dialogue that has taken place over the last week or so has given Ms. Tang a bit more to think about and believe that she is less “adamant” and more apologetic than you might think from her initial comments. I don’t see the point in further browbeating at that point. She does represent AAs and yes, she does have the power to perpetuate stereotypes, but I believe that we must welcome her into the community as opposed to ostracize her, as though that would effectively change her tune when she is attacked from the AA Christian community without first trying to explain that she is hurting, not helping the image of AAs. Maybe she has just discovered the weight of what it means to be an AA Christian woman writing and how so much depends on her words. Despite the fact that you and I might be better versed at articulating this tension between being Asian and American and Christian, we would be foolish to think that everyone has or even wants to wrestle with these issues. There are a great number of people that think lightly of their race and culture, but we must not make what we know seem a virtue that they lack, but rather an absolute essential that they too must know.

    Now will Camy Tang promote stereotypes and mock Asian speech or cultural mores? Possibly, but I believe we can accomplish more by being her Mordecai as opposed to her naysayers.

  10. While I don’t necessarily agree with Camy Tang’s perspective, I appreciate it and need voices like hers in order to keep engaging in issues I think I’ve already “arrived” on. I would agree with David. I think she faces a harsher critique because she is a Christian, and perhaps because she is a Christian Asian American woman finding success in a field many who would consider themselves more intellectually advanced would thumb their noses down on. (BTW, a healthy dose of chick lit & other fiction coupled with the Psalms does wonders.) Before Skits That Teach came Rickshaw Rally, a VBS curriculum put out by the SBC’s publishing arm. Honestly, fighting stereotypes as an adult is one thing. Preparing my children to fight those has been far more difficult. Adults engaging in healthy dialogue over blogs and conversations is one thing. Allowing those stereotypes to continue by literally teaching them to youth under the guise of spiritual development is what frightens and saddens me.

  11. andre

    You know that I appreciate your work in raising this and other situations like “Skits” to the general attention. I’m also grateful for emergingtruth for keeping watch on this as well.

    However, if there is one aspect of the engagement that I wish were a little different, it would be the tone carried in the engagement, especially in the initial stages. I think that it isn’t always profitable to have a “shoot first” mentality. I guess I’m concerned that while we battle racism, we not lose the battle of within our own hearts to be charitable. Perhaps we can approach the likes of Ms Tang with the grace and kindness that reflect Christ rather than champions our grievances.

    Just a thought for all of us to keep in mind. Thanks for all you do.

    Grace to you

  12. daniel so

    thanks for sharing these great thoughts.

    though the “skits” fallout has been heartbreaking and frustrating at times, this kind of dialogue says that there is hope for the future.

    i really appreciate your ideas about living in the tension between east & west, asian & american. there is a stream of asian-american theology that emphasizes our “pilgrimage” — that the dissonance we experience as being both asian & american but not fully either reminds us of our ultimate heavenly citizenship.

    the task, i suppose, is translating this pilgrim theology into kingdom living here & now. instead of slipping into “sweet by and by” thinking (i.e., just get through life so that we can get to heaven), it would be amazing to see God’s people actively participate in the redemption of our cultural heritage. as you rightly observe, we need to get away from this idea that the gospel transcends our culture by somehow “de-asianizing” us (or, at the other extreme, by completely asianzing us).

    as members of a marginalized group, we have a unique freedom to create culture (as opposed to those who might be so deeply entrenched in the mainstream that they could not, even if they wanted to, change their culture).

    i had a chance to sit down with marko from youth specialties a couple of weeks ago. i have begun sharing some of my thoughts about that encounter (and weighing in on asian-american youth ministry in general) over at my blog. it will be interesting to see where all of this leads.

  13. gar

    A lot of great comments here by David and others… for myself, I thought I’d chip in that I believe in issues of racism, stereotypes, and ethnic identity, the Asian American Christian community ought to take a harder look at itself. Part of the process of reflecting our shared identities and communities is reserving the right to criticize the things we see wrong, especially in regards to the voices that represent us.

    I’m sure Camy is a well-meaning person, but it seems a bit unrealistic for her to think that if she chooses to write a fiction novel focusing on Asian American Christian characters, her own identity as an Asian American Christian gives her an impenetrable aegis against peers in her community voicing their concerns over comments she’s made in regards to her novel, her publisher, or how her work appears to be marketed.

    On the flipside, I’ll be brave enough to say that I want to read the novel and give it chance. Hopefully the dialogue that’s occurring here and in other places on the WWW will contribute to the novel’s quality as a piece of writing…


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